Better Things

Tuesday December 15, 2020

Sumana Harihareswara’s recent post about American exceptionalism resonated with me:

I am a patriot but I thought I was a thoughtful one. This year has brought home to me how much American exceptionalism was still lurking in the corners of my head.

I learn individual facts – that trains are cheaper and more frequent and more convenient in many countries I’ve visited, that my colleague in Norway has used easy electronic transfers to receive and pay money all his life and has never seen a paper check, that folks in Melbourne just call an ambulance for a stranger in trouble and don’t worry about cost, that a bunch of people I know in Europe or Australia make their livings working part-time and don’t have to figure out how to pay for health insurance – but I have a mental block stopping me from adding up that two and two are four.

A LED billboard reading 'URGED TO QUARANTINE 14 DAYS'

I wrote about these same sorts of things when I was thinking about moving to Taiwan, but actually being here has driven this home even more. I think about driving from NYC to San Francisco when I was moving, and seeing signs on the highway coming into Chicago urging visitors from COVID hotspots to quarantine on arrival, and then I think about arriving in Taiwan, having my temperature taken, having a government subsidized and regulated quarantine taxi take me to a government subsidized and regulated quarantine hotel, where I waited while the CDC texted me each day to ask about my temperature and symptoms.

I think about the NYC Subway — one of the best in the country, where I regularly waited half an hour to get on a dirty train that would move at a crawl, and then I think about the Taipei MRT, where I’ve yet to wait more then 4 minutes to get on a perfectly clean train that goes so quickly I don’t usually have enough time to really get into reading a book before I get to my stop.

I’m reminded of AOC comparing Canada to the United States:

See here’s the thing — it’s so funny because between having public insurance, y’all being able to go to the doctor without going bankrupt […] What’s so surprising to me is that you know I’m here in New York City — Toronto is just a day’s drive away, and when we propose similar policies in the United States people are saying this is impossible — this is candy land — this is not viable. And you can literally drive one day or just a couple hours in some places, it’s just a stone’s throw away from being able to afford your insulin, or be able to have public health insurance and get a check back. […] But there’s so much scare mongering around socialism in the United States that, like, this is why we can’t have nice things.

There’s a sort of myopia that comes from living in the United States — the idea that everyone can have cheap and accessible healthcare seems like a far off dream, until you raise up your head and look around and realize that nationalized healthcare is the default thing in almost every other “first world” country.

I used to think that just showing people that better things are possible would be enough — that surely, once people realized that so much of the cruelty and suffering in the United States isn’t necessary, but is simply a choice being made by people who are powerful enough to live in a different world from the one they are creating, things would start getting better. I think I still believe that, but like Sumana, I’m finding that a lot of my American exceptionalism is more deeply rooted than I thought — it’s easy to know that things are better in other places, to know that they could be better, but still to not quite put two and two together.

I don’t have any answers here, but if nothing else, 2020 has given me plenty to reflect on.